What is and what isn’t bullying

By Michelle Covington
Bullying in school

The first step in the fight against bullying is to define what it is and what it isn’t. We all have a mental image attached to the word bullying that centers around schoolyard fights. It’s the largest boy in school picking on everyone else. But, in order to combat the very real problem of bullying in schools, we have to move beyond this simple definition.

Bullying is a pattern of behavior by a person or group of people who repeatedly and intentionally exert power over another person.

Not all of the scars victims bear are visible. In fact, visible scars are not the real intention of a bully. They want to dominate and control others. One of the persistent myths about bullies is that their actions come from a place of insecurity. Paul Coughlin explains that bullies actually often feel superior to their targets.

Watch a clip of Paul Coughlin’s bullying program here >

Today we’ve identified four major types of bullying that occur – physical, verbal, social alienation, and cyberbullying.

Physical bullying – This is where that previous mental image belongs. Typically, boys are more likely than girls to participate in physical bullying, but bullies aren’t always the biggest and badest kids on the playground. Later in this series we will focus more on who bullies are, but it is important to note at this point that they come in all shapes and sizes. Physical bullies attack their victims through hitting, pushing, tripping, slapping, stealing or destroying possessions and sexual harassment or assault. Physical bullying includes not only the physical act itself, but threats of physical harm. When a victim fears for his or her physical well being, this kind of bullying is taking place. Physical bullying is not the same as a fight. The bully exerts physical power over a chosen target on multiple occasions. Targets are usually chosen because the bully doesn’t expect them to fight back.

Example – The bell rings between classes. Chris stays in his seat a little longer than most of the students. If he waits long enough, maybe Alec and his cronies will have already found another target in the hallways and he can make it to his next class unscathed. Chris makes sure he is the last student out the door, his eyes darting through the hallway to check if the coast is clear. As he walks toward his next class, Alec crosses his path and smacks the books out of Chris’ hands. As Chris picks his books up off the floor, Alec pushes him over and then walks away, laughing with his friends.

Verbal bullying – When a teen routinely puts down another person through their words, they are attempting to exert control over that person verbally. Teen girls are much more likely to engage in verbal bullying than boys. They do this through name calling, insults, gossip, teasing, taunting, intimidation, and sexist or racist remarks. The scars of this kind of attack may not be visible, but they are very real. Just like targets of physical bullying, targets of verbal bullying fear going to school. But, verbal bullying has a longer lasting impact. Words stick around longer than bruises, causing depression and anxiety well into adulthood. Words hurt. And people who persistently use words to hurt other people are bullies. These incidents of bullying need to be taken just as seriously as any other form of bullying. Do you know the policy of your teen’s school regarding verbal bullying? Make sure you ask!

Example – Cassie is sitting with her two best friends in the lunchroom. A group of girls sits at the table behind them and begins talking about her to each other. “Do you see what she’s wearing today? I didn’t know they made dresses that big. Where do fatties shop anyway?” Cassie knows that the girls are talking about her, and so does everyone at the tables surrounding them. The girls are intentionally talking loudly enough for everyone to hear them.

Social alienation – This is also called covert or indirect bullying and is the hardest for parents and teachers to spot. Most of this kind of bullying goes on behind the victim’s back through spreading rumors, mimicry, non-inclusion, and pranks. But negative gestures toward the victim and public humiliation are also a very damaging element of this kind of bullying and are more observable by the target. Bullies who attack their victims through social alienation need an audience. They derive power in a social setting by exerting social control over another person and bystanders are drawn into participation as the bully dictates the social structure. Bystanders are the weapons of the bully, but they can also be the weapon against the bully. When they stand up and refuse to participate with the bully’s tactics, they take away the bully’s power.

Example – Devin meets up with his friend Grey as they get on the school bus to go home. He noticed that Grey was avoiding him all day. Devin asks Grey if he wants to hang out this weekend. Grey says he can’t. When Devin asks him why, Grey tells him that some of the popular guys at school asked him to hang out with them instead. He said the only way they’d let him hang out with them is if he doesn’t hang out with Devin anymore. Grey tells Devin that they can no longer be friends because the other guys say he’s a loser and they don’t want him around.

Cyberbullying – As technology evolves, so do the ways in which bullies can target their victims. Cyberbullying is any sort of verbal or social bullying that occurs through an electronic device. Bullies can send threats, taunts, or insults via text messages, email, chat rooms, SMS, Facebook, or any other social media. There are entire Facebook pages devoted to teens bullying their classmates. Unlike other forms of bullying, victims feel like there is no escape from cyberbullies. The bullies follow them everywhere they go through their phones and the internet. Victims of cyberbullying often don’t tell parents or school officials because they are afraid their phone and computer privileges will be taken away.

Example – Gabby logs on to Facebook. She’s been tagged in someone’s photo. Someone took an unflattering picture of her as she walked down the hall at school today and posted it with a crude caption. The picture has only been up for a couple hours, but it already has over a hundred comments. She scrolls through the comments, nearly all of which call her ugly, fat, or a slut. Some of the comments are from people she thought were her friends, and she doesn’t even know half of the people commenting on the photo. She untags herself in the photo, but she knows that it won’t stop the comments. She feels humiliated and helpless. When she goes to school tomorrow, she knows everyone will be talking about the picture.

For more information on cyberbullying and what to do if your teen is being cyberbullied, read Paul Coughlin’s article >

What bullying isn’t

We’ve already defined bullying as a pattern of behaviors. This element is essential in labeling an incident bullying. While isolated events should be dealt with and students should be taught that any behavior that hurts another person physically or psychologically is unacceptable, they don’t make the perpetrator a bully. Bullying is never random. Victims are carefully targeted and pursued by the bully. Bullies repeatedly torment others. Until a pattern of physically, verbally, or socially abusive behavior has been established, bullying has not occurred.

Make sure you talk to your teen about bullying and what bullying behaviors might be going on in their school.


Learn more about bullying on our bullying topic page.

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